The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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Course Hero, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter Study Guide," July 14, 2017, accessed November 18, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Heart-Is-a-Lonely-Hunter/.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Part 1, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter opens on a summer night. It is midnight and Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café where Singer eats all of his meals, is waiting on a handful of drinking customers. Singer is there, but Biff's attention is on a drunk man in overalls. Once he feels sure everything is okay he goes upstairs to take a brief break in the rooms where he lives with his wife, Alice. He trips over an unexpected suitcase, and it wakes Alice up. They argue about the owner of the suitcase, the drunken man in the overalls who has been on a weeklong binge at the café. Alice wants Biff to get rid of the man and plans to keep his belongings since he has not paid any money for the food and drinks Biff has been giving him. Biff does not appreciate her threats and goes into the bathroom to wash his face and shave, although their argument continues and they insult each other.

Biff takes the suitcase back down to the restaurant when he returns. The man in overalls, now identified as Jake Blount, is still there, drinking and rambling in a nonsensical, disjointed way to no one in particular. Biff reads the paper but stays alert to what is going on, feeling nervous about Blount and like "something of importance would happen tonight."

Then Mick Kelly enters the diner. She is "a gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve," who Biff realizes is never around people her own age. She has come to buy a pack of cigarettes and despite some misgivings, Biff sells them to her. When she hears Blount comment that it's odd how Singer never speaks to him, she reveals Singer has been living in her family's boarding house for three months and that if Blount knew anything about Singer, he would not find his silence odd.

After Mick leaves, Biff decides to try to get Blount to snap out of his binge. He tells him to go into the kitchen and clean himself up, put on clean clothes, and start looking for work in the morning. Blount starts to get angry, so Biff gives in and gets him another beer. Before long, Blount wanders out of the bar, and Biff's thoughts turn back to Mick, whom he has tender feelings for.

Then Blount comes back in, leading "a tall Negro man with a black bag." Biff recognizes this man as a physician who is somehow related to Willie, the young man working in the kitchen. The doctor quickly leaves, but Blount is very wound up, "in a frenzy." He sits down to talk to Singer and rambles for more than an hour. Finally, around three in the morning, Singer leaves. Once again Biff tries to talk to Blount, but he drunkenly wanders back into the street. Biff dozes while standing at the cash register but is awakened by Willie, who is very agitated. He tells Biff that Blount has gone crazy and the police have taken him into custody and are on their way to the café with him.

Biff calmly greets the policemen and agrees to keep Blount with him, saying this will probably be the best way to calm him down. Singer has seen what happened and also comes back into the café. Blount is hurt rather badly and is delirious. Singer writes to Biff: "If you cannot think of any place for him to go he can go home with me. First some soup and coffee would be good for him."

It takes some time, but Blount does finally eat and becomes docile enough that Singer can lead him to his room at the Kelly boarding house, carrying his suitcase. Biff muses on the events of the night before going up to the apartment. When Alice asks about Blount, he rudely tells her to go downstairs herself to find out if he is there or not. But she is busy preparing her Sunday school lesson and ignores him. He bathes and then asks her to get out of the bed so he can get some sleep. After remaking it, he wearily goes to sleep, musing more about the evening's events and about his own state of solitude.

Analysis

All of the major characters in the novel have been introduced by the end of this chapter, although one—the African American doctor who briefly enters the diner—is not yet named and little is revealed about him. However, the context in which he is introduced is important. Blount drags the doctor into the diner because he is trying to stir up trouble and pick a fight. The 1930s South is still quite segregated; African Americans can't go "in a place where white men drink." The doctor, who will later be revealed as extremely angry about the way African Americans are treated, turns "a look of quivering hatred" on Blount. It will not be their last encounter.

McCullers has revealed in these first two chapters much more about the other major characters—Singer, Biff, Mick, and Blount—and readers start to get to know Singer and Biff in particular. Character by character, chapter by chapter, McCullers will flesh out their personalities, using the unique strategy that the third-person omniscient perspective allows of going deeply inside the mind and life of one character in each chapter.

This chapter presents Biff's perspective on the town and its inhabitants. Through his observations, readers get to know Alice, Mick, and Blount, but they understand his own self-conception as well. He sees himself as a kind man, as someone who likes "freaks" and will help people out when they are down. He knows he is observant and can measure people's characters quickly and accurately. In fact, he is the only major character who does not interact one-on-one with Singer, preferring to understand and observe than to try to be understood. He responds negatively to his wife because he sees her as unkind and without any sort of curiosity about the world. Theirs is a relationship lacking in reciprocity and no shared interests. As he tells her, "The enjoyment of a spectacle is something you have never known." He no longer feels any attraction to Alice, but he might be having inappropriate feelings toward the young Mick and thinks ruefully about how his genitals have not been of any use to him in quite a while.

Biff has a great deal of interest in what goes on in the world, not just in his diner. He reads the paper every day and keeps them all, having catalogued them by date for 21 years. He seems to be a seeker of knowledge. He has rejected the religious beliefs of his mother and wife and is open to hearing new ideas, even wild ones. This explains Biff's interest in Blount from the very beginning: it is clear Blount is not like other people and has a different perspective on the world. McCullers will portray this habit of Biff's as a good character trait, in sharp contrast to the black-and-white way of looking at the world that other characters like Dr. Copeland and Blount have.

The unreliability of communication is again highlighted in this chapter. As Blount talks on and on to Singer, he does not realize Singer cannot speak. It doesn't seem to matter to Blount; he simply wants someone to listen to him. Perhaps Singer is willing to take Blount back to the boarding house because he is a bit like Antonapoulos in this way. Singer is empathetic toward the drunk's anger and ravings and selfishness because these things are familiar to him.

Loneliness and alienation are also highlighted. Mick is clearly a loner because she is not often seen with other young people; Biff is a lonely married man who oscillates between fatherly affection for Mick and attraction to her. Blount feels alienated from the world and uses drinking and loud outbursts against the status quo to give vent to his feelings, and the African American doctor is embittered by the way whites keep his people separate.

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